Work by Patti Crouch has appeared in various journals, including Stone Highway Review, Pilgrimage Magazine, Bellingham Review and Damselfly Press. She teaches in Tacoma, where she lives with her husband and two sons.
Imagine a volcano glowing white against a blue bruised sky, against a scrim of magenta clouds. As the first sunbeams pierce the horizon, a shadow streams above the summit – a huge inverted cone that looms like great angry arms. Driving to work, I watched for the mountain between buildings as I listened to the radio. In the darkness that morning, a SWAT team trailing a desperate path through snow had found a body in an icy creek. At work, colleagues call this a “good death,” take grim satisfaction that a fugitive purported to have “survival training” had died in a teeshirt, one tennis shoe lost, killed by the mountain he’d desecrated. Two days earlier he had shot a park ranger, held off rescuers at gunpoint as she died, fled on foot into the snowy woods. Though news photos showed a muscular, bare-chested soldier brandishing weapons in each hand, his friends speculated he had sought Mt. Rainier as a refuge, having camped there as a child.
That evening, I tell my husband of the fiery clouds, the massive shadow, the imagined cry of retribution. He’ll have none of my foolishness, explains the angle of sunrise behind the mountain at New Year’s, the basic science of rotation and shadow. My sputterings of sentience and justice are silenced by the ding of an email – first one, then a flurry. In Montana, an old friend, who had once led wilderness trips with my husband, has died while backcountry skiing. A conservationist beloved for his intelligence and charisma, he had dedicated his life to protecting habitat for grizzlies and wolverines. In his last moment as he saw the avalanche break, he called a warning to his wife, who clung to a tree as the wall of snow swept him away.
Rainier haunted me that January. When I read the account of the ranger’s memorial, I cried for a woman I’d never met. I cried for her young daughters singing “Jesus loves me” with perfect conviction, for her minister father sermonizing through grief, for her ranger husband who, within months, would transfer to mountains a thousand miles away. Just days after the service, a series of storms slammed through the region, trapping hikers and climbers on the snowfield below Camp Muir. From a city encased in snow and ice, I followed the updates obsessively. The mountain’s tally seemed a jumble: four lost, three rescued, including a grandfather who’d been assumed dead as soon as darkness fell. He burned his money and marched in place till dawn. A middle-aged couple dug snow caves and hiked out after three days, before anyone knew they were lost.
My obsession with the mountain was hardly new. Having grown up in the austere beauty of the Rockies, I still turn to mountains the way a needle points north. Though my childhood church gave me a creed, the land – its wide sagebrush valleys, steep ridges, boulders tumbled down hillsides – taught me reverence. I had no illusions that nature would take care of me. The hollow eyes of winter-killed cows made that clear. Yet then as now, the wilderness evoked a porous sense of awe that I’ve taken as divine. Often I would stop, hold my breath and turn in every direction, as if by looking at the wild land and vast sky I could glimpse the face of God.
Years ago, standing on the train platform at Birkenau, surrounded by acres of chimneys beneath a leaden sky, I wondered if I would ever pray again. A line of serene poplars, planted by prisoners, glowed green with early buds. The spring hope they offered seemed obscene. As a child I was taught to pray, told that all would be right in heaven, and I believed. As an adult I see the ash mound of Majdonek, the frozen bodies at Wounded Knee, stacks of shining skulls, and I can’t imagine what power was watching. What was promised of heaven remains invisible; what I see on earth breaks my heart. In my reflexive prayers to God, I seem as guilty of magical thinking as in my longing for a natural world that lives and breathes with the human spirit. Both seem futile, yet beauty remains.
In Rainier’s northwest shadow is a campground severed from roads by the 2006 flood and left to crumble into the trees. Now only vague outlines remain: patches of asphalt and parking barriers encased in moss, half-circled by the hiss and rattle of Ipsut Creek. Beneath massive firs, the campground seems suspended in perpetual green twilight, beautiful and desolate as a forgotten graveyard. Camping there with my family, I found myself speaking in low tones, walking through the undergrowth with the reverence one would use in a cathedral.
The local tribes call the mountain Tahoma, Mother of Waters, say its gleaming peak is sacred. Geologists call the mountain one of the world’s most dangerous, a mass of rock and ice barely containing its molten core. They warn of earthquakes and lahar, a mile-high wall of ash and mud coursing through suburbs all the way to Puget Sound. But today Rainier is sublime, a refuge of mountain goats and wildflowers, where snowfields roar with spring runoff, glaciers pitch into scree, icy streams churn through rocks. Weird lenticular clouds swirl like UFO’s above its summit. In its wild beauty, danger, and heart-breaking indifference, the mountain seems divine.
Sometimes, in the tiny stone church near my home, I think of the agrarian people who built the great religions. As refuge from lives ruled by nature’s implacable rhythms, they created harmonies, colored windows, seasons codified and tamed by ritual. Through dogma and art, they contained God within a space that was hushed and shadowed and safe. In a modern life lived mostly inside, our greatest threats lie not in accidents or famines but in the illnesses of plenty. We need nature to show us the wild face of God.
Paul says we see through a glass darkly. I say through a pinhole, our faint perceptions projected inside a darkened box. My glimpse of the divine – inverted, grainy and nearly colorless – looks like mountains, crashing waves, the vast splash of stars across an endless sky. I can’t believe in nothingness, so I choose to believe in mystery. What seems unfair, indifferent, blood-soaked or evil, comes from my inability to perceive beyond the box. Perhaps laying down childish things means releasing the expectation for answered prayers, for understanding. With the reverence and quiet fear of traversing snowy peaks, crossing rivers or skirting wave-splashed headlands, I seek God in the dark place where danger and beauty intertwine.